“Conspiracy Theory” in 1930’s Science Fiction

The Great Illusion illustration1b

UPDATE: When you’re dealing with long defunct magazines and house names of writers it can be difficult to determine who wrote what. Will Garth was one of the pseudonyms used by Henry Kuttner, it was also a house name used by the Thrilling group of pulp magazines: Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling StoriesStrange Stories, and Captain Future. There are several Kuttner/Garth stories, but the one I discuss in this blog post is not one of them. I just discovered this and in the interest of good scholarship I stand corrected. The Great Illusion (Thrilling Wonder Stories, June 1938)  was penned by Edmond Hamilton. No surprise that it’s one of my favorite Will Garth stories! Now…back to the review….

The Great Illusion illustration1c

Whether or not you believe in conspiracy theory, or conspiracy fact, there’s no denying that science fiction rubs shoulders with it all the time. Although spacecraft and aliens are common elements used by sci-fi writers, they’re not the only ones. Mythology, New Age spiritualism and Ascension theory are also common thematic components.

The broad idea in Ascension theory is that our planet, as an energetic being, is ascending into a higher plane of existence. She is leaving the 3rd/4th vibrational level and becoming a 5th dimensional entity. So, yes, that means that the planet is alive. Also, that she has a hand in her own destiny. During this ascension process human souls living in physical bodies on the Earth can choose to ascend with her. Or, they can remain in the more familiar-feeling 3rd/4th vibrational reality. No one knows how this split will occur — there might be another planet available for those choosing to stay in the lower vibrations. Other theorists claim that reality will split apart and there will be more than one Earth on which one can live.

Additionally, some Ascension-theorists believe that Earth has been in a cosmic quarantine for millennia. There are many reasons why this might be so. A few of the theories are:  that Earth is a farm for the harvesting of energy (see the movie, Jupiter Ascending for a pretty good summation of this theory.) Our world is a slave planet and/or dumping ground for intergalactic misfits making it a dangerous slum. Inter-dimensional parasites, called archons, infest the human population making us a sort of spiritual contagion. And the list goes on.

A planetary quarantine can also be an explanation for visiting UFOs — they’re here to monitor our progress and keep us from destroying ourselves. This is only one of many theories about UFOs, so please don’t shoot the messenger. The point I’m trying to make is that many people today believe that the Earth has been penned-off and that there are off-planet intelligences keeping a beady eye on us.

I was surprised to discover a succinct version of this idea in a short story from 1938, written by pulp writer, Will Garth. Will Garth was a pseudonym used by several authors including, Henry Kuttner. Stories published under the Garth name often refer to what we consider conspiracy theories.  It makes me wonder whether editors chose this psuedonym for fringe stories. Barring a time machine, we’ll never know. If it were possible, I’d love to ask.

The Great Illusion was published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in June, 1938. Kenneth Dain and Ross Ormond are Earth’s first astronauts. Their small rocket is supposed to be headed for the moon, but Dain has other plans (which Ormond only finds out about once they’ve left Earth.) Dain’s destination is the planetoid, Eros, which he feels is a queer mystery. According to the story, Harvard astronomers in 1936 discover that Eros is a rounded-end cylinder, completely unnatural for a celestial body. Except for the moon, Eros is the closest celestial body to Earth and Dain is determined to find out what it really is.

[As a brief aside — according to Wikipedia, 433 Eros is an elongated, stony, peanut-shaped Near-Earth asteroid discovered in 1898. It was visited by the Shoemaker space probe in 1998 and was the first asteroid studied from orbit. Now back to the story…)

When they get close enough, Dain and Ormond see that Eros is a huge artificial construction, a symmetrical cylinder with rounded ends. They land the rocket on the metal surface, then don space suits and go out to take a look around. They discover a solar power array (yes, they did know about solar collectors back in the 1930’s) and eventually a monumental airlock.

The real 433 Eros

Inside, they are confronted by a half-dozen inhuman creatures, white floating jellyfish, eighteen inches across, dragging long tendrils. Each has a single eye in its body. Two of the six carry small instruments like miniature harps in their creepy tentacles.

When strummed, the harp-like instruments create extreme nerve pain and Dain and Ormond are captured. (I’ve been a sound healer for two decades and find it interesting to see the use of sound as a weapon in this story.)

They’re taken deeper into the bowels of the space station/ship where they pass by an enormous room with a colossal tetrahedron hanging above a ring of large glass spheres. Each sphere is filled with white light and projects a thin stream of light energy at the tetrahedron hanging above. Dain figures that the glass spheres are receptacles for the solar power collected outside which they’re using to power the tetrahedron. But why?

In the station’s central chamber one of the creatures activates a generalized telepathic field. Now Dain and Ormond can talk to the aliens. The aliens are Altorians, guardians of the Great Illusion. The Altorian leader admits with some reluctance that the two astronauts must die to keep the secret of the illusion safe. And what is the illusion? Eros is really a projector for a field that makes all the local stars look impossibly far away from Earth. When, in actuality, the planet of Altor is close enough to the Sol system so that crews are switched out every three years. This means that even a small rocket like Dain and Ormond’s can reach Altor easily.

The men are astounded —how is this possible? The Altorian explains that the great illusion is maintained to keep men from invading Altor again. Men invaded Altor before and nearly destroyed it, ages ago. In the end, the Altorians forced humans back to Earth and smashed man’s civilization back to the stone age. Then they set up the station with its solar-powered tetrahedron to create the illusion of extreme distance from Earth to her nearest star neighbors, imprisoning men in their own solar system.

The doomed astronauts try to find a way to survive. They tell the aliens that they’ve sent a message back to Earth describing Eros as an artificial construction. This unnerves the aliens enough to threaten the men into sending an additional message — that the station is a radioactive mass, and that Dain and Ormond are already lost. They use pain from the harp-like weapons to make the men obey.

The astronauts and their captors head back to the rocket to send the message. Along the way Dain gets an idea. As they pass by tetrahedron room, he acts! Dain leaps over the unrailed edge of the corridor and falls into one of the huge glassy spheres. The surface cracks and the stored solar energy flares up, destroying the other spheres and the tetrahedron. Within a heartbeat of Dain’s plunge — the station explodes in a flaring, fusing wreck.

Back on Earth, astronomers are awaiting news of Dain and Ormond’s moon landing. A group gathers outside to gaze at the night sky. Then…the sky changes! Distant points of light flare into their true burning glory. For the first time in ages the firmament is seen in its totality. Men realize that the stars are reachable by rocket and determine to start exploring the universe. The veil of cosmic illusion is forever torn aside.

The Great Illusion is a terrific story. It’s certainly obscure. As far as I can tell it was only published once in 1938. Using Eros as the name of the Altorian space station is clever, an obvious reference to the myth of Cupid and Psyche where the truth of Cupid’s identity is hidden from his human lover, Psyche. Curiosity forces her to look where she shouldn’t — shining a light on Cupid’s sleeping form — after which she knows the truth that he’s a god and he must leave her. Dain’s curiosity about Eros (another name for Cupid) drives him, and unsuspecting Ormond, to the space station where they unmask an ages-old cosmic secret.

Some people today believe that we are not seeing the skies as they truly are. There are many thoughts about why this is — that our solar system has changed positions in the heavens (here is a video discussing this “Mandela Effect,”) or that geoengineering is masking a vastly different sky than we think is up there.

I’m not saying that Henry Kuttner was a conspiracy theorist (if the term was even used back in the 1930’s), a government insider, or some kind of future-seeing psychic. He did, however, write a remarkably large number of stories, frequently under lesser-known pen names, on topics which we would consider “tin-foil hat.” Wherever his inspiration came from, he was a science fiction visionary and one of my favorites.

If you’re interested in reading The Great Illusion for yourself, you can read it for free thanks to the good people at the Internet Archive.

P.S. In the same issue you’ll also find The Dual World by Arthur K. Barnes, an excellent story in the Gerry Carlyle, Interplanetary Huntress series. I’m a great fan of the Barnes/Kuttner collaborations for Gerry Carlyle, Interplanetary Huntress/ Tony Quade, Hollywood on the Moon stories, as well as the Pete Manx series, both are well worth exploring for any pulp fan.

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